It would seem that in the last 15 years the Palestinian people have lost the support of the majority of the world on key issues of our struggle against Zionism. While the world supported the Palestinian people’s right of return to their homeland in a UN resolution that is reaffirmed annually, much of the world now seems to support some form of compensation, if anything. While much of the world supported the dismantling of Israel as a racist settler colony, evidenced by the 1975 UN Resolution that identified Zionism as “a form of racism and racial discrimination”, in 1991, much of the world repealed that very same resolution. While much of the world was then decided on isolating Israel diplomatically as one of three pariah states (Apartheid South Africa and Taiwan being the others), now most of them have established diplomatic relations with it. The only Palestinian right that most of the world seems to still support is the right of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians (but not Jerusalemites) to self-determination and the end of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza (but not East Jerusalem). The right of the Palestinians to resist the occupation, which had much support previously, is now supported by few. This loss of support is not confined to states and governments but includes political movements and individuals.
Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, the PLO expressed a clear vision of what liberation meant. This was articulated by Yasser Arafat at the UN in his famous speech in 1974 and in other PLO statements. The diagnosis of Zionism was clear: Zionism is a racist movement that discriminates against Jews themselves and allies itself with colonialism; Israel is a racist state that discriminates against its Palestinian citizens and prevents those Palestinians it expelled from returning; and Israel is a settler colony intent on territorial expansion and the occupation of the lands of neighbouring countries. The solution was also clear (although in need of refinement: the establishment of a secular democratic state in all of Mandatory Palestine, where Arabs and Jews would have equal rights. It was in this context that international support and solidarity at the official and unofficial levels declared Zionism to be racist, tirelessly reaffirmed the right of expelled Palestinians to return to their homes and lands, and affirmed the legitimate rights of Palestinians under Israeli occupation to resist their occupier.
Since the PLO began to waver in its vision and mission and embarked on a path that recognised Israel’s right to be a racist Jewish State and began to negotiate under US sponsorship in Madrid in 1991, the international friends of the Palestinian people have been thrown into a state of utter uncertainty. The first major concession that the PLO had to make in the context of Oslo was to allow the repeal of the international consensus on Zionism-as-racism and substitute for it the US and Israeli consensus, namely that Israel was the only democracy in the Middle East locked in a land dispute with its neighbours. One of the earlier accomplishments of the new consensus was the US — and Israeli — sponsored repeal of the 1975 Resolution, which was carried out in 1991. The same states that had supported the Resolution in 1975 supported its repeal in 1991. While in 1975 UN Resolution 3379 was supported by 75 countries (35 voted against and 32 abstained), the 1991 repeal was supported by 111 countries (25 voted against, 13 abstained). Evidently, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc was a major loss for the Palestinian cause at the UN. However, the transformation of the views of Third World friends and allies, and of movements and individuals around the world, was brought about more by PLO concessions and transformations than by any other factor. Zionism has remained as racist in its ideology and practices as it has always been; it was the PLO who no longer wished to condemn it for such racism. Our allies, some argued, could not be expected to be more pro-Palestinian than the PLO. Since the Madrid conference, and especially after Oslo, Arafat and his cronies began to circulate proposals and ideas that conceded the Palestinian people’s right of return. It is in this context that the majority of the world that supported the Palestinian right of return (including the US until the mid-1990s) began to waver. As for the legitimacy of Palestinian resistance to occupation and racism, in the late 1980s and as a condition for a dialogue with the US that never materialised, Arafat had identified it, on US orders, as “terrorism” and “renounced” it. In light of Oslo, Arafat and the PA put a stop to the first Intifada and have been diligently trying to suppress the current one. Our allies and friends, as a result, began to waver in their support for Palestinian resistance. Moreover, when Arafat negotiated the Oslo deal and transformed the PLO from a liberation movement into an instrument of the Israeli occupation, dubbed the Palestinian Authority, all those countries that had diplomatic boycotts of Israel wondered why they should continue with them when the PLO and Arafat had established diplomatic contacts with a colonial state that practices institutionalised and legal racism. Israel’s international diplomatic isolation was thus ended thanks to Arafat’s deal.
The reversal of these important achievements, which had kept Israel, in the eyes of much of the world, as a racist colonial outpost, was not only felt at the official level but also at the level of political movements and individuals for whom the PLO and Arafat were symbols of struggle against colonialism and racism. These same people were to join the international chorus of support for Oslo as the way to resolve the “conflict”. In this light, how could Palestinians then ask that such individuals, movements, and countries be made to account for reversing their erstwhile support for the Palestinian people’s struggle when all they have done was follow the example of the PLO and Arafat?
I believe that Palestinians (and we are in the majority) who understood Oslo as a mechanism to liquidate the Palestinian national struggle against Zionist colonialism and racism can indeed make such demands on our allies. Those intellectuals and movements who, at most, support an end to the occupation through “negotiations”, and say precious little about the legitimate rights of the Palestinians to resist, and nothing about Israel’s racist character or the refugees’ right of return, must be called to account for their following in the footsteps of Arafat.
When we look at the history of international solidarity with oppressed peoples we find many examples of compromised national leaderships. The collaborationist South Vietnamese government of Nguyen Van Thieu, for example, did not sway those in the international arena who supported the Vietnamese struggle for liberation. A collaborationist Mangosutho Buthelezi did not sway those who supported the South African struggle either. Those who supported the end of the settler-colony of Rhodesia did not reverse their positions as a result of the triumph of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU over Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU. Similarly, those who supported the Iranian Revolution did not change their minds about the nature of the Shah’s regime and the need to overthrow him when Khomeini took over, anymore than those who supported the revolution against Haile Selassie change theirs when the Derg took over under Mengistu. The fact that Arafat and the PLO dropped their opposition to a racist Israel and transformed themselves, under the guise of the PA, into enforcers of the occupation does not mean that international solidarity should support such transformation. Arafat’s predicament with the Israelis in the last two years (for which he received support from friends and allies of the Palestinians) is based on his refusal to cooperate fully with all of Israel’s demands, not on account of his struggling against Israeli racism and occupation. Those countries, groups, and individuals that comprise international solidarity should be able to make such distinctions.
This confusion and failure on the part of international supporters, it is said, is the outcome of the absence of a cohesive Palestinian movement or leadership that could provide an alternative to Arafat and the PA, as Mandela and the ANC provided to Buthelezi or the Viet Minh provided to Thieu. But this argument is a dangerous one. It ignores the fact that it is as a result of Arafat’s and Israel’s policies that Arafat remains the only available leader of the Palestinians. Israel has been assassinating Palestinian leaders around the world for the last three decades, at an accelerated pace in the last two years of “targeted” killings, while it is Arafat’s leadership and his monopoly of power that has prevented alternative leaderships from emerging. It has also been the Israeli occupation that controlled which Palestinians could conduct political activities in the occupied territories and those that could not. The grass-roots leadership that emerged in the first Intifada was jailed, co-opted, killed, or marginalised by Israel and the PLO-cum-PA returnees. In this context how can the argument be made that the lack of an alternative Palestinian movement or leadership justifies the lack of principled international solidarity?
Despite the confusion and disarray in which Arafat’s concessions have thrown our friends and allies the Palestinians continue to command much support across the world and inspire solidarity everywhere. If states that supported the Palestinians before Oslo are intimidated by US and Israeli power now, political movements, intellectuals, and activists have not been so easily silenced. Many people from around the world have come to the West Bank and Gaza in the last two years to help fight the occupation and protect Palestinian lives. Many others write and speak on our behalf in newspapers and world fora. Still, many more march in demonstrations protesting Israeli violence in the capitals of Europe and North America, not to mention the Arab world, while others have begun campaigns to divest from Israel and to boycott the country. This is an important body of support that is looking for direction. In calling on the allies and friends of the Palestinian people to remain steadfast in their principles I am not discounting the immediate necessity for a unified Palestinian leadership to lead the struggle against Zionism. In all other successful national struggles it was always the national liberation movement that took the initiative and gave direction to international supporters. What is needed now is a Palestinian leadership that is prepared to lead the struggle for a non- racist state. By taking this initiative such a leadership will galvanise existing support for the Palestinians as well as a worldwide constituency committed to fighting racism.
Palestinians are indeed attempting to build an alternative leadership against numerous odds. The recent Palestinian National Initiative is a step in the right direction for Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, and it needs international support. In the meantime, Palestinian Israelis have a besieged leadership that also needs international support against the institutionalised racism of the Jewish State. Diaspora Palestinians unfortunately remain leaderless. While the struggle to establish a diaspora-based movement to replace or take over the PLO has proven difficult in recent years, attempts continue in that direction.
In the meantime, international supporters must take a clear and principled stance on the racially discriminatory laws and practices of Israel, on the right of the refugees to return and on the right of the Palestinian people to resist Israel’s colonial occupation. If Palestinians are too weak to oppose all the racist and colonial manifestations of Zionism, this in no way exonerates the international solidarity groups and individuals from demanding an end to all racist states, foremost among them Israel, which is the last remaining racist colonial state that justifies its racism by law. (Other states simply practice it). An oppressive state cannot be judged as less oppressive on account of its cooptation of the leadership of the oppressed and its liquidation of the resistance; if anything this demonstrates how deeply oppressive such a state is.
The fact that the PA has a coterie of Palestinian comprador intellectuals who justify and defend its collaboration and, like Arafat, derive their legitimacy from their pre-Oslo history, should not sway our principled allies. The cooptation of Arafat, the PA and a segment of the Palestinian intellectual class into the US-Israel orbit has indeed been a major loss for the Palestinian people and our allies. If international solidarity falls in the trap of supporting a compromised Palestinian leadership and suspends its support for Palestinian resistance, however, the Palestinian struggle will be doomed. Now is the time for the friends and allies of the Palestinian people to affirm in clear, uncompromising terms their commitment to the justice of the Palestinian struggle and resistance to the Zionist colonial project. As a number of prominent Palestinian personalities have asserted in the last decade only a secular democratic binational state where Jews and Palestinians can have equal civil, political, economic, national, and cultural rights will ensure that justice is served and that the colonial Zionist project will come to an end. The Palestinians must endeavour to create a unified leadership capable of leading the struggle for a non- racist state. Given Israel’s formidable power, however, the Palestinian people cannot do this on their own. international solidarity will be crucial for the difficult task ahead.
The writer is assistant professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University
This article first appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly. It is reproduced by EI with permission of the author.